The evening Mark and I arrived at our current house sit in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the owner pointed at a blotch on the mountain side to the northwest. As a cluster of lights started to come on in the distance, he said, with importance in his voice, “That is the infamous site of Los Alamos.” The generation growing up in the 60s might raise an eyebrow of recognition right now – my parents did, all the way in Belgium, when I told them about it – but I gave him a blank stare. Mark nodded his head. The man looked at me and poked, “You know, where they built the atomic bombs that ended the war.” I knew about that world and history-altering event, of course, but still had never heard of Los Alamos. We had to check out what the fuss was all about.
The day after Mark and I did our hot hikes in Bandelier National Monument, we woke up to a beautiful morning and had our Sunday breakfast in the camper. I was feeling better, but we decided on taking it easy that day. The downhill drive to Los Alamos town was short and the parking lot in front of the visitor center empty.
A few sites are scattered around the heart of the sleepy town. We walked by all of them, reading the historic signs and the brochure we picked up at the visitor center. We were surprised by the time range of the historic artifacts (from the ancestral pueblo site of the 1200s to the statue of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves, erected in 2011) in this small area and by the lack of visitors. Ashley Pond was another pristine sight in this well-taken care of town. It looked very different from the 1940s, when all the buildings around it were in use for the Manhattan Project.
We swung by the visitor center of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. This addition to the National Park Service was established very recently, in November 2015. Because of that, the contamination of many sites (radioactivity) and the fact that there is still top-secret stuff going on, the only things a visitor can learn about the nuclear bomb building, the importance of Oppenheimer and how the project came into existence (and why this site was picked for it) is through a very interesting video and displays on the wall.
The rangers gave a little spiel when we set foot in the building and were happy to answer our questions. Except for the top-secret stuff. Their (and our) hope is that over time, many of the important and still existing buildings of the Manhattan Project will be opened up to the public. They already have a brochure with photos and info about future sites that are yet inaccessible. The rangers are excited about these big plans and about turning quiet Los Alamos into a booming tourist destination.
Another interesting tidbit is that this town has the highest concentration of PhD holders and is the second-most affluent city in the United States. The engineering success of America’s nuclear inventions lead to the creation of the massive Los Alamos National Laboratory. Almost all the inhabitants of Los Alamos work or have worked in this laboratory. When approaching town through the hills, you pass many Laboratory sites that are off-limits and spread out for safety reasons. You also have to pass a security checkpoint and safety zone. For sure, there must be a lot of top-secret stuff going on!
In the afternoon, Mark and I had a quick look around in the free Bradbury Science Museum. Some exhibitions revealed more of the town’s intriguing past, with historic footage and life-size replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the devices that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and left lots of horror in their wake. Most of it, however, appeared to be one big advertisement for the importance of the National Laboratory. No wonder it was free! On the drive back to our current home in Santa Fe, we passed a different section of Bandelier NM, and decided to hike the Tsankawi trail, which I reported on in a previous blog. Full circle and the beginning of a new work week.
- Entrance to Manhattan Project National Historical Park – and the Bradbury Science Museum – is free. There is plenty of free parking everywhere.
- Mark and I brought our own lunch and ate in our camper, but Ashley Pond is a pretty place for a picnic as well. The only establishment we saw open on Sunday was Subway. The ranger mentioned that, for Los Alamos to become a tourist destination, the town needs more and better hotels, restaurants and bars.
- There are other museums around, charging small fees.
Had you ever heard of Los Alamos and/or the Manhattan Project?